Thursday, December 20, 2012

Happy Holidays!

In case the world ends tomorrow, I wanted to reach out to my readers one last time. Thank you for your interest in my ramblings on writing, for your comments and tweets, and for making this whole writing thing less lonely.

If the world doesn’t end tomorrow—and I’m planning on it sticking around a bit longer—then I hope you have a wonderful holiday season with you and yours, however you celebrate.

I’m taking a break for the rest of the month. See you in the New Year (fingers crossed)!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Assumptions, part deux

Last week, I talked about reader assumptions and how the writer can use them to their advantage in their stories. They’re great for worldbuilding shorthand and reveals and revelations, so long as you don’t thoroughly confuse your reader in the process. And I should also say, it can take time to get a bead on what readers think as they progress through a story. Experience will help guide your intuition, along with really awesome trusted readers.

But today, I want to talk about a different kind of assumption. The assumptions we writers make every time we sit down and, well, write.

Think back on when you first started writing. Did you think it would be easy? Did you think if your story had a beginning, middle, and end, it was bound to be good?

As you continued to write, did you assume that if you never stopped, that would somehow translate into success? What about if you wrote a good story/book and assumed it would sell even if there wasn’t a ready market for it? After all, we are told to write the book of our hearts, regardless of what the market demands… Did you ever assume you could get away with breaking the rules because you are you?

Alas, in writing there is no easy button.

Now, some of these assumptions may smack of naiveté now, but I guarantee you those assumptions were helping you to do one of two things: 1) Stay motivated – those dreams of making it big fuel us all at one time or another, and 2) Finish the story – after all, if you don’t make it to the end, it doesn’t matter how well you can write.

In the post Different Stages, Different Questions awhile back, I talked about how writers operate at different stages of writing experience, and the questions that guide their efforts. I also think the assumptions we carry with us at different points in our lives also have a formative effect on our work.

After all, if you don’t know any better, those assumptions are all you have to navigate the writing process. And they can be useful, except when you reach a point where they stop being helpful and start being a hindrance.

I want to point you to a series of posts on The Cockeyed Caravan blog by screenwriter Matt Bird (and if you haven’t visited this blog, you are missing out). In the series, he talks about the more detrimental assumptions we writers make about process, craft, and careers, and discusses the actual reality we face. I know it’s a lot of links to click through, but I think you’ll agree that he’s spot on.

Happy writing! (And retooling your own assumptions about writing!)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You Know What Happens When You Assume Things…

Assumptions sometimes get a bad rap. A lot of times they make an ass out of you and me, but that’s often only in hindsight. In fact, I’d posit assumptions are essential to living, and, along with that, writing.

After all, an assumption is made based on the information you have on hand or experiences you’ve acquired and can extrapolate from. For example, deciding what to wear based on a glance out the window—I assume I won’t need a rain jacket because the sun is out. Or I assume I can make cream of cauliflower soup because I’ve made cream of broccoli soup in the past.

The assumptions we make are based on our accrued knowledge. So we accrue knowledge to survive, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge is always enough to navigate our world. Mistakes do happen, and that’s actually a good thing for writers.

As people read our stories and novels, they are interpreting our words and trying to make sense of the world we’ve presented them with. To do this, they must make assumptions. For example, if I don’t point out that the sky is green in my story and people get around by walking on their hands, my readers will assume the sky is blue and people walk like normal.

So if on page 30 I suddenly point out that the sky in my world is actually green, that forces the reader to stop and reevaluate what I’ve told them. This can be a bad thing when it throws the reader out of the story. But for some story elements, particularly reveals, this can be a neat trick and make your reader even more invested in figuring out your story as they try to fit the pieces together into a cohesive whole.

"But what does it all mean?"

I like to do this particularly at the opening of a story, where I’m trying to hook a reader’s interest by slowly dealing out world details. Readers will make assumptions based on what is mentioned and/or described, along with what isn’t. And depending on how those details complement one another or how they disrupt one another, my reader will make assumptions about the larger story world that can potentially make the worldbuilding easier on me.

As writers, we should all be relying on a reader’s assumption about genre conventions when crafting our stories except when those conventions interfere with the story we’re writing. In other words, we should be using these assumptions as world building shorthand except when they get in the way. Big deviations, ones that will just cause more confusion than not, however, should probably be addressed as soon as possible so you don’t disorient the reader.

But for me, I like to use reader assumptions and turn them on their head sometimes. As James Killick discusses in Reveals and Revelations,
If you break it down, there are only really two types of revelation that can be made within a story – revelations about the story and revelations about character. The differences should be fairly self-explanatory – a revelation about the story is when something is revealed outside of character – who the murderer is, who is sleeping with the heroine's husband. Character revelation is when something is revealed about character – a hidden trait, an unrealised dream, a hitherto misinterpreted desire.
And both of these (when successful) work because the author has leveraged the reader’s assumptions about the story. The trick is setting them up (which is another post entirely :P).

As readers, we make all kinds of assumptions based on what’s presented to us by the author, as well as unconsciously, based on our own personal and cultural biases. Remember the social media explosion when peoplewere surprised that Rue was black in the movie version of The Hunger Games? That was attributed to a tendency of assumed whiteness where readers assume literary characters are white unless told otherwise. In fact, as The Hunger Games demonstrated, those details stating otherwise can be easily overlooked in a culture of assumed whiteness (and it must be said, poor literacy skills).

So what does that mean for the writer? Well, I think in some ways it’s our duty to engage with these assumptions and draw attention to them by disrupting them in unique ways without sacrificing story. Particularly the more insidious ones related to gender and race and power (and Juliette Wade has a great post on this subject).

But ultimately playing with readers’ assumptions is just another tool in your toolbox. So use it wisely.

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